If you go looking for underground or “cult” horror movies you’ll quickly enter an Inferno-like descent of people declaring that the previous level’s offerings are totally weak and that they know where the real shit is. I suspect that if you go deep enough you probably just end at videos of actual murders, but long before that point you’ll find yourself wading through increasingly awful low-budget films with bad special effects.
Session 9 comes from a much higher plane. It lives closer to the light, where the air is relatively clear and the worst you have to put up with is a pre-CSI David Caruso giving birth to a semi-famous GIF. I sought it out quite a long time ago because there’s a reference to it in Silent Hill 3 and found it to be a fun watch that got under my skin to an extent that I wasn’t expecting.
But my purpose today isn’t to praise the movie, or even to discover if it still holds up. I want to talk about Session 9 because it’s relevant to some (hopefully) interesting discussions on topics within the horror genre.
Yes, that’s right– this is a think piece spoooOOOooOOookily pretending to be a review. Enter if you dare.
Gordon Fleming is a hard-working dude who owns a small asbestos removal company, but unfortunately asbestos removal is (from what I understand) one of those industries like mushroom farming or Ello that enjoyed a brief flare in popularity before fading. Gordon’s fortunes are on the wane at exactly the wrong time, as he’s just become a father and his burgeoning family’s finances are seriously strained. In a bid to save the company he finagles a contract to strip the asbestos from the abandoned (and real– the movie was filmed there) Danvers State Mental Hospital in one week.
Unfortunately his trusty asbestos crew have a heaping helping of simmering tensions bubbling just under the surface. One of the men discovers a series of taped interview sessions with a woman who is either possessed or suffering from Hollywood Dissociative Identity Disorder (take a wild guess which one it is), and as things get weird and tensions rise it starts to seem like something is stalking the hospital’s abandoned halls.
I’m going to spoil this movie as part of the discussion, so if you plan on seeing it here are some GIFs of David Caruso putting on his sunglasses to provide buffer space.
Okay so it turns out that the patient in the session tapes was indeed possessed by something (we never learn what) and it’s still haunting the hospital, waiting for someone “wicked and weak” to serve as a new host. Poor old Gordon turns out to the perfect candidate, and at the end we learn that he’s been under the being’s influence for most of the movie and is directly responsible for most of the creepy shenanigans that have happened– including, ultimately, the deaths of all of his employees.
This clutch of plot twists involved in this reveal are delivered so artfully that it can take quite some time (or repeat viewings) to realise that they don’t actually make a lot of sense. That’s the first topic I want to talk about in relation to Session 9: how a skilfully told story can bamboozle the audience into accepting absurd turns.
There’s a strange (and creepy) scene early on where Gordon drives home and gets out of his car, followed by a brief scream and a cut to black; we later learn that he murdered his wife and daughter at the behest of whatever has taken root in him during his first day at the hospital. It’s a deliciously creepy twist, revealing that he’s been coming to work for six days while the bodies of his family moulder away in their house, but when you start thinking about it it doesn’t really hold up logically. Did no one notice that Gordon’s wife hadn’t left the house in six days? What if a relative tried to call and she didn’t pick up? In reality if most people are murdered it tends to come out relatively quickly when they mysteriously stop going outside or contacting anyone.
Gordon doesn’t actually realise what he’s done– he remembers hitting his wife in a fit of temper and has been calling her obsessively to try and apologise in the hope she’ll let him back in the house. The very last scene in the movie reveals that the huge old-timey phone he’s been using to call her is broken. He hasn’t been talking to anyone at all. It’s a brilliant scene, but it also cheats because we’ve seen the phone in close-up multiple times before this. Are these scenes being filtered through Gordon’s (possibly supernatural) psychosis? If they are then why just the shots of the phone? Why didn’t anyone else notice it was broken?
Now, here’s the question: does it matter that these twists make no sense? No, not really. They’re effective, and in the moment they fit together well. The movie is satisfying because it gives the viewer a series of “a-ha” moments where seemingly nonsensical moments from earlier suddenly click into place, and the reveal of Gordon as the catalyst behind everything is so effective in part because the film does a very good job of setting up other character as red herrings. David Caruso seems like the most likely to commit murder due to a beef with one of the other crew members (who is himself a total scumbag who you can imagine getting up to all sorts of unsavoury things) and there are little hints dropped that the guy listening to the tapes is being psychologically affected by them in some way. In hindsight it’s obvious what’s really going on, but on a first viewing it’s easy to wave off Gordon hearing voices and having odd visions as signs of an impending mental breakdown, particularly since the actual concept of possession is only concretely brought up at the very end of the movie.
Transitioning clumsily into important topic 2: if you’re at all familiar with the horror landscape across all mediums then you might have cringed upon seeing the words “mental hospital”. In recent years there have been more and more discussions around the fact that horror’s long fixation with spooky psychiatric hospitals and depictions of the mentally ill as violent murderers is sort of, you know, not cool. See for example the Asylum Jam, a yearly game jam dedicated to producing horror games that specifically avoid doing this.
Session 9 is kind of a tricky proposition when evaluated on these grounds. It’s set in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, but its setting is a real place rather than some gothic nightmare cooked up to look spooky. By and large we’re not expected to see the hospital as creepy simply due to to the fact that it once housed people with mental illnesses (in fact most of the movie takes place in bright sunlight), but there’s also a scene that uses (mostly real) rooms plastered with a patient’s newspaper and magazine clippings for spook factors.
Worst of all, the session tapes are a ludicrously cartoonish portrayal of dissociative identity disorder, and the conflation of this condition with demonic possession is seriously troubling.
The pendulum swings to the other side with the fact that the movie at several points points out that psychiatric patients are simply cast out onto the streets with disturbing regularity, as well as highlighting the absurd injustice of lobotomy as a “treatment”. But on the other other hand, a character getting lobotomized by demon-Gordon is a thing that happens. It’s kind of hard to mount a convincing moral criticism against something when you’re also using it as a totally wicked-awesome scene in your horror movie.
A certain sub-section of people will get very angry indeed if you dare to suggest that any topic should be considered off-limits (because then the terrorists win), but I’m going to say that mental health and horror movie just plain don’t mix. Just the proximity of the two topics can’t help but suggest, however unintentionally, that mental illness is scary or horrifying.
As for the movie itself, on rewatch it’s extremely clear that it’s trying to be The Shining, with title cards showing the progression of each day, but it’s hampered by the choppy editing of many of the scenes and the fact that it was clearly shot on very cheap cameras. You can see that the original ideas were good ones, but they’re executed with a slight tinge of amateurishness.